Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Lessons of the Cold War

My own memories of the Cold War are of a great ideological contest. There was a Cold War because communism and "democracy" were totally opposed. Communism believed that it had to, and would, take over the world. It had to be stopped.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian, has written a small book called The Cold War: A New History, that helps me see that ideology was only one strand of the Cold War. The others were the postwar stalemate division of Europe and--above all--the dread of nuclear war. When these three combined, as they had by the mid-1950's, the leadership on both sides began to evaluate itself, and to be evaluated by its constituents, according a single paramount standard, namely, how well it stood up to the other side. That was the essence of the Cold War.

The single most important fact about the Cold War, not only according to Gaddis but according to just about everybody, is that there was no nuclear war. There very easily could have been. Had the leaders of the Fifties and Sixties been like those of the Thirties and Forties, there would have been. But World War II was not fought in vain. Illusions about the destructiveness of war were no longer possible. The single major Cold War leader who felt no horror of nuclear war was Mao Tse-Tung, who had no nuclear weapons until the mid-Sixties. Mao's Great Leap Forward had cost 30 million lives. Another 30 million would have meant nothing to the Great Helmsman--if China could have gained anything, geopolitically speaking, by it. Fortunately, given China's minimal nuclear status, Mao saw no percentage in triggering Russian or American retaliation.

The second most important fact about the Cold War--this is me, not Gaddis, but he very possibly would agree--is that it was largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is where ideology was so important. Stalin and the Soviet leadership of his time sincerely believed their Marxist-Leninist doctrine. They believed that the contradictions of capitalism would continue to cause depressions and wars, just as they already had, weakening the system and driving the proletariat to revolution. The Soviet big brother, the first socialist nation in the world, would foster and guide those revolutions. In this sense, Stalin did believe that the U.S.S.R. would one day dominate all of Europe, and he said so openly.

The Americans heard something different, namely, that the Soviet Union was driven by a fanatical, implacable hegemonist ideology that ensured it would use every possible means, including military invasion, to extend its domain. The Americans, by taking Soviet ideology at full face value, in effect committed themselves to an equally rigid counter-ideology. Long before the Cold War ended both sides had ceased to think in such purely ideological terms. But by then, the Cold War was its own reason for existing.

In reality, neither Stalin nor any subsequent Soviet leader ever planned any offensive into western Europe. They did maintain forces capable of that, partly to ensure continued Soviet control of the eastern European countries they had occupied in 1945 and partly to deter the "counterrevolutionary" attack from the West that their ideology taught them to anticipate.

Gaddis gives many other examples of mistaken assumptions, misreadings of the other side, and outright blunders, that actually make up much of the core history of the Cold War. Out of many, one of the more interesting, to me, was that the many "wars of liberation" in the Sixties and Seventies were not evidence of any Soviet master plan, as was widely believed at the time. On the contrary, there were those in the Kremlin who considered most of them a waste of time, attention and resources. But they faced their own military-industrial complex and their own covert operations agencies eager to win points (and budget) for apparent successes for the socialist cause. It was hard to say no without appearing weak. The Americans faced the same thing. Kennedy, for example, found himself unable to block the CIA's Bay of Pigs invasion. He let it go forward, to his regret.

Gaddis' treatment of detente is deep and thought-provoking. Detente was the policy, initiated by Richard Nixon, of closer communication and cooperation with communist nations, especially the U.S.S.R., for the sake of peace and mutual progress. Nixon's 1972 visits to Moscow and Beijing were the most visible moments of detente, and the Strategic Arms Limitation treaty was its centerpiece. Detente remained U.S. policy until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.

Gaddis believes that the real purpose of detente was not to lessen the threat of war so much as to shore up the political fortunes of two governments that had proved themselves incapable of ending the division of Europe and finding a way past their own ideological preconceptions. By limiting strategic missiles to "only" enough to shatter both countries permanently, Nixon and Brezhnev appeared to be proving their responsiblity and conferring a boon on their respective countries. In reality, according to Gaddis, each was helping the other enact a charade of doing something useful. Detente in fact not only accepted but re-emphasized the threat of nuclear war, and implied that it would forever be a fact of life. In that, it prolonged the Cold War--because the Cold War had by then become essential to the power structures of both nations.

The Cold War came to an end only when new leaders in the 1980's broke the received paradigm that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were helpless to end it. The drastic arms reduction, and later arms abolition, talks held by Reagan and Gorbachev were key. The threat of Mutual Assured Destruction was one of the most important premises of Cold War thinking. Both Reagan and Gorbachev rejected that premise, though in different ways. They believed it was only a matter of political will for their nations to de-emphasize, and then end, their reliance on nuclear weapons for security. Other important players were Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Hsao-Ping. Every one of them broke, radically, with some fundamental Cold War premise.

In the end, new thinking was, according to Gaddis, the real cause of the Cold War's extinction. Not just the new thinking of leaders, but the new thinking of hundreds of millions. In the 30 years before its end, the citizens of the Soviet Union (and of its satellites) learned to live "double lives," outward approving of their governments but inwardly thinking and feeling something quite different. In the end, this meant hundreds of millions of people had already internally defected from their governments and their official ideologies, and that when they began to move toward something else, they would become an unstoppable force. This became dramatically visible during the astonishing year of 1989.

In the West, there was an ocean of disgust with existing leadership for its inability to transcend the Cold War impasse--for Vietnam, for its inability to do anything meaningful to get rid of the nuclear sword of Damocles, for the continued division of Europe. Reagan's genius, Gaddis says, was to understand how badly the United States wanted fresh thinking on these things. Gorbachev's was to grasp that his country could never return to Brezhnev-style stasis--that it would kill the U.S.S.R. as surely as any American missiles could. Gorbachev, however, never had the ability to propose anything new to fill the void left by the demise of Marxism. Reagan could offer his ideas as simply the logical outcome of very traditional American beliefs and values.

A final observation about the Cold War is that nobody foresaw its end. Well, almost nobody. George Bush pere, the president at the time, has candidly admitted that he and his administration were taken totally by surprise when 1989 unfolded the way it did. So was Gorbachev. Thatcher claims that she foresaw it, though not in any specificity. She seems to mean that she always believed that a hollow system like communism would eventually fail. Although Pope John Paul II, so far as I know, never said so, he may well have been the first to grasp what was happening. He had spent thirty years living in communist Poland, and he knew how people there felt. He knew that Poland would remain Catholic much longer than it would remain communist.

Failure to foresee the end of the Cold War tells us something very important about history: it happens invisibly. History is not just the presidents and generals, the wars and treaties, the laws and doctrines. It is the billions of little things that bring human minds into a new alignment. Gaddis thinks the Cold War would not have ended without Reagan and other imaginative leaders. But it also would not have ended without the many Russians, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and East Germans who simply grew tired of living double lives.

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